How History Gets Rewritten

Hong Kong’s leaders and police have sought to recast what has happened in the past year. Even if no one is convinced, it may not matter.

A riot police officer detains a man during a protest outside a Hong Kong shopping mall.
A riot police officer detains a man during a protest at a Hong Kong mall. The demonstration in July was against a mob attack by suspected triad gang members nearby a year prior. (ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP / Getty)

Over Hong Kong’s year of mass protests, certain moments rose above the din, some humorous and touching, others violent and disturbing. Few remain as traumatic as the attacks last year in the Yuen Long subway station. There, on the night of July 21, dozens of men in white shirts carrying rods and sticks, many of their faces obscured by masks, beat groups of commuters who scrambled for safety, cowering in train cars and piling into public restrooms in search of safety.

The incident—referred to now in shorthand as “7.21”—remains an emotional milestone, one imbued with sadness and anger, not just because of the shocking scenes of violence, but the sluggish response by police. The alleged involvement by triads harkened back to a time when the city was less polished, where gangsters were emboldened and the police force was riddled with corruption. The belief that public places far from protest routes could serve as safe spaces was exposed as a naive illusion.

Many Hong Kongers were outraged recently when the police began making arrests over the Yuen Long violence, picking up and charging not the attackers, but those who had been beaten, including a prodemocracy lawmaker left bloodied in the mayhem. Then, more than a year after the incident, officials presented an entirely new narrative of what occurred that night—recasting it as a pitched battle between two evenly matched sides, one of quick action by police in which the victims were actually the instigators.

This new version of events marked the most blatant and audacious attempt yet at sweeping historical revisionism of last year’s protests. Hong Kong authorities appear eager to not just quash the demonstrations and move on, but create an alternate history of events in which prodemocracy protesters are the villains, bringing suffering on everyone else. It is not an uncommon tactic among autocratic regimes, wiping problematic episodes from the historical narrative, presenting the status quo as a moment that was never in doubt. The authorities in Hong Kong are going a step further, rewriting a movement that, although slowed, is very much ongoing, with hundreds arrested at protests on Sunday, when legislative elections were supposed to take place.

The recasting of the Yuen Long episode comes soon after a report in May by a widely discredited police watchdog that cleared the force of almost all wrongdoing. More recently, references to last year’s demonstrations have been removed from textbooks used as part of Hong Kong’s liberal-studies program. Some of these removals have been done under a voluntary scheme, the government pointed out, but with a national-security law now in place that criminalizes even protest slogans, the risk of falling afoul of regulations carries a steep price. In statements, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, speaks vaguely of “some unprecedented social disruptions” of the past year, rarely mentioning that the impetus for these demonstrations was her hard-charging attempt to push through a controversial bill, one she pulled back only after months of sustained protests. All the while, the authorities have pumped out films lionizing the police and the government.

Calvin So, a Yuen Long resident, shows his scars and bruises after he was wounded in July 2019 demonstrations. (ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP / GETTY)

The police appear particularly perturbed by negative depictions of their actions and, under a more aggressive and media-savvy commissioner, have looked to seize greater control of the narrative. They have sent more than 100 letters to outlets to rebut articles, and grown their public-relations team, now arriving at protests with their own media in tow to film incidents and show people “what really happened in such scenarios,” according to the police magazine OffBeat. The force said on Sunday it used “minimum necessary force” to apprehend a 12-year-old girl, despite a viral video showing her being tackled to the ground by an armor-clad riot police officer.

Just last week, Lam waded into an ongoing legal debate, arguing that the separation of powers does not exist within Hong Kong’s government. The remarks themselves align with Beijing’s long-held position, but the swift removal of a statement from a government website to the contrary raised a chorus of criticism that again the authorities were looking to alter the historical record. (The government said it was taken down as part of an update to the site.)

“This is a very [mainland-China]-style approach to managing history and managing public opinion,” Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and the author of two books on Hong Kong’s protest culture, including City on Fire, which documents last year’s demonstrations, told me.

Lam Cheuk-ting, a prodemocracy lawmaker, was among the nearly 50 people injured during the Yuen Long attacks. He cooperated with police, who have arrested a number of the attackers and found some have links to organized crime, and he received a note in return thanking him for “fulfilling your duty as a citizen and reporting these serious criminal acts to the police.” So Lam was stunned when officers stood outside his apartment last month, informing him through his security gate that he was being arrested for rioting, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 10 years. “How ridiculous,” he scoffed as he was told of the charge. (In the months following the Yuen Long violence, Lam became a vocal critic of the police and led the call for an independent investigation into the force.)

During a press conference on the evening of Lam’s arrest, Chan Tin-chu, a senior police official, launched into an abrasive, lengthy reimaging of the Yuen Long attack. It was not an “indiscriminate attack” by a band of thugs, but rather a fight between “two evenly matched rivals.” What people saw on multiple video recordings was not the full story because reporters, he insisted, showed “just one side” of what was happening. Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist turned political hopeful who captured the incident on live-stream and who was attacked herself, shot back in a social-media post: “How should a person who is being beaten up film themselves?”

Throughout the protests, Hong Kong’s government found itself perpetually outmaneuvered in messaging, at home and abroad, by a quicker, savvier protest bloc that had seemingly endless creativity, energy, and resources. The efforts to claw back control of the embarrassing Yuen Long story line are difficult because authorities never had it to begin with, a result in part of an overreliance on traditional media for information.

The night of the attacks, according to three people familiar with the events, Lam had gathered at her official residence with a small group of her closest confidants to monitor protests unfolding across the city, which by then were an almost weekly occurrence. Crowds swelled outside Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Demonstrators hurled paint at the gold-and-red seal of the Chinese government affixed to the building and defaced the exterior with graffiti.

Hong Kong police march through a Yuen Long shopping mall during demonstrations in July. (TOMMY WALKER / NURPHOTO / GETTY)

Lam and her colleagues left their phones outside of the room as they watched live TV feeds from the city’s major broadcasters, a precaution they took for security purposes but that had the unintended consequence of keeping officials from seeing news from alternative outlets—social-media platforms, online journals with unedited live-streams, and messaging apps where snippets of information spread at head-spinning speed. On those channels, unbeknownst to the highest echelons of Hong Kong’s government, word was beginning to spread of a violent, organized mob attack. Not until Betty Fung, the head of a government think tank that advises the chief executive, stepped out to use the bathroom did officials become aware of what was unfolding, the three people, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me.

Fung noticed a flurry of messages in a WhatsApp group she was a part of with her office mates. Her replies, which continued into early the following morning, initially showed confusion and disbelief. She remarked that the station was supposed to be closed and asked at one point whether the video clips could be “fake news,” according to WhatsApp messages I reviewed. (Lam’s office did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Fung’s or those of two other officials in attendance.)

This disorganization appeared to be mirrored by police, who took about 40 minutes to arrive at the station despite hundreds of emergency calls. The government did not acknowledge the incident until early the next morning, when the violence was briefly mentioned in a press statement. Protesters criticized the government for caring more about Chinese property than the safety of Hong Kongers.

The recent attempted retelling of the night’s events has further perplexed and angered the public. People accused the police of trying to “point at a deer and call it a horse.” Graffiti mashing up the Chinese characters for the two animals quickly popped up on the streets, as did advertisements in a local newspaper for a “Deerathon” running event.

The rumors and suspicion that have plagued the protest movement have helped create an environment where authorities are more able to muddy the narrative. Dapiran, the author, told me that some protesters have clung to stories about forced suicides and police killings at another subway station last year, which speaks to the distrust of the force—but also provides police cover for writing off other fact-based grievances. Some people “undermine their own case by doggedly hanging on to the conspiracy theories,” he said.

Still, Hong Kong does not—yet—operate under exactly the same rules as mainland China, and authorities will have a hard time telling the population, millions of whom directly participated in prodemocracy protests, to unsee and unlearn everything from the past 18 months.

Hong Kong, a former colony that is administered as a special administrative region, has been an outlier in evading Beijing’s draconian controls over the flow of news and efforts to retool the collective memory. The anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which China has sought to wipe from its history, is marked yearly in Hong Kong at a vigil that attracts hundreds of thousands of people. A museum dedicated to the event continues to operate. Hong Kong’s internet is also still free, and thousands of videos documenting the events of last year are easily available. Though interference in journalists’ work is increasing, it is still relatively limited. And the courts, which remain open to the media and observers, are beginning to hear protest-related cases. The narrative that the police and the government have put forward will come up, potentially “setting them up to be wrong again, which doesn’t seem to be the wisest choice,” Dapiran told me.

Yet even if no one is convinced, the propaganda itself is the point, a show of the state’s ability to lie, and face no consequence. Haifeng Huang, an associate political-science professor at UC Merced, who is an expert on Chinese propaganda, wrote in a paper examining the issue that it “is often not used for indoctrination, but rather to signal the government’s strength in maintaining social control and political order.” Even so, Huang wrote in an email, if these efforts are “widely viewed as distorting truth, it may signal the authorities’ power but at the same time alienate citizens and worsen their attitudes toward the government.”

As Chan, the senior police official, spun his yarn of what apparently happened in Yuen Long, fact checks and notes of astonishment piled up on social media. “Seriously what have i just watched,” one reporter, who co-authored a book on the protests, tweeted as the press conference ended. The question captured the befuddlement of many. For Chan, the answer was straightforward. He concluded his remarks simply: “We have restored the facts.”